Sunday, November 28, 2010

Annatto seeds

Well, this was fun.  These are annatto seeds, the seeds of the achiote trees of the tropical Americas.  Historically used as body paint, lipstick, and food coloring, it is still widely used today to tint various foods, including butter and cheese.

There are some nice pictures of the plant it grows from over here, as well as links to recipes.

To the left is a super-macro photograph, but here's what the same thing, about half a teaspoon, looks like to the non-macro lens:

The seeds are about half the size of peppercorns, and have about the same hardness. Like dried peppercorns, you can bite them open with an effort, but you wouldn't want to add them whole to any dish. The taste is mild and slightly peppery, and sometimes they are ground whole and added to foods. Mostly, though, it's the red coating alone that is used.

To make annatto oil, all you need to do is add 1 teaspoon of annatto seeds to 1 tablespoon of oil (any kind; I used canola), heat to simmering, and let simmer for two minutes or so until the oil has turned a deep orange-red.

Strain the oil:

The taste of the oil does not change, but it is now infused with a powerful dye that you can use to give a cheerful warm colour to sauces, rice, or your rubber spatulas.  I didn't know what to expect, so I made a simple rice dish by briefly frying cooked rice in the annatto oil for a few minutes:

It was pretty and festive.  That shiny lacquered look is not a photographic illusion.  I'm eager to try it in more things, like a veganized version of the Mayan chicken with spicy orange paste from over here.


  1. Great post! I have my first annatto seeds in the cupboard and wasn't quite sure how to make the oil. Thank you!

  2. I've never heard of these seeds before, very interesting I'll have to keep an eye out for these!

  3. Thanks, celyn and Islaborg. I'm looking forward to going back over some of the other items I've blazed through at the speed of light and taking some more time exploring them.

    Today, for instance, one day after this post, I made cashew cheese. Why, oh *why* didn't I think to put some of this annatto oil into it? I could have had actual orange cheddar!!!

  4. I used to work with a woman who used annatto as her yellowing agent. But, I've never tried it...must do so. The list of "must do's" and "things to try" from your blog is getting very long!

    Very interesting to see the actual plants. The shape reminds me of fenugreek seeds. It does give a warm and cheerful color indeed. That little dish of rice cheered me up for sure.

  5. I brought home a package of annatto seeds from Ecuador and then never used them. The color of the oil is so gorgeous, and the rice so beautiful, I may have to procure another bag at the store.